FIFA reform must not leave developing countries behind

Jack Warner: under arrest. EPA/Alva Viarruel

I have just returned to the UK from Trinidad and Tobago, from where I watched the FBI raids in Switzerland – the raids that brought FIFA’s house of cards down and, ultimately, caused the resignation of long-time president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter. Central to the FBI investigations is Jack Warner, who hails from this small country of 1.3 million people.

The former FIFA vice-president and president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) was among 14 people indicted by a US grand jury on corruption charges. He has now vowed to release an “avalanche” of secrets about FIFA’s practices, says he knows why Blatter resigned and also claims to have evidence linking FIFA to his country’s 2010 election.

While we wait for further revelations, one thing is clear. Serious reform of FIFA’s operations must be undertaken for the good of world football. But the voices shouting loudest for reform don’t necessarily have the whole world’s interests in mind.

It is problematic that the US and UK – two countries with long histories of global intervention – are driving the charge for reform. These two countries share similar cultural and business practices, often asserting their way of doing things as universal or at least the norm. Others consider this behaviour as a continuation of attitudes from the imperial and Cold War eras where might equalled right.

Echoing comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the FIFA crisis, Jack Warner’s newspaper in Trinidad and Tobago, Sunshine, asserts the campaign against FIFA is really about attempts to discredit Russia, which is hosting 2018 World Cup. Tensions between Russia and the West are at high levels due to conflict in Ukraine and Russian jets undertaking fly-overs in the English Channel.

The politics of sport. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

Blurred lines

Every story has more than one side – even Jack Warner’s. There are far more facilities for football in the Caribbean than before his tenure in CONCACAF and FIFA. Likewise with Sepp Blatter, who has raised FIFA income massively during his period in office.

While the Anglo-American discourse asserts there is a firm line between ethical behaviour and corruption, in much of the rest of the world that line turns into a blurry continuum with less precise divisions. As a result of similar scandals besieging the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sports studies scholar Douglas Booth has argued the culture of reciprocity and gift-giving common throughout the world suggests one person’s gift exchange may be another’s bribe and we must be careful of cultural determinism that leads to absolute condemnation.

Too often, we want to see sport as pure and noble, yet it exists in the real world like anything else. The US state department has not spent millions of dollars a year on its sporting diplomacy programmes for the past 50 years simply to spread goodwill. Indeed, it has lists of preferred countries, which are strategic priorities, where they operate programmes.

If it were simply about sport and goodwill, the programmes would be universal or indeed be used to provide sustainable sporting facilities in places unable to afford them without outside assistance.

Imagine yourself the president of the Antiguan Football Association. You have one vote for major decisions at an international organisation equal to the vote of the US, UK or China. Would you not want to leverage that vote into as much return as possible for the development of football in Antigua? Corruption does not lie in seeking advantage for your country or football, but in diverting those gains into personal wealth out of proportion to your efforts or the income generated.

The question remains: where is the line and who gets to draw it? These are fundamental problems for FIFA, as for any international sporting federation.

Reform must be globally inclusive – not just UEFA driven. EPA/Patrick B Kraemer

Real change

FIFA is in need of reform. Indeed, many would like to see it fall, but to be replaced by what? International football is too large an enterprise to be administered by anything other than a global body, which would need to develop a set of practices to ensure the future of the game is built upon the successes of the present.

The postcolonial era has been a long and difficult one, marred by the Cold War and continuation of exploitative economic practices on the part of those countries who benefited most from colonialism. One country, one vote may not be the perfect solution – perhaps proportional power based on population or other measures might be more equitable.

But the Anglo-centric worldview must be flexible enough to accommodate dissent, disagreement and differing philosophies so that the greatest good for the greatest number is practised in reality, not merely what is good for ourselves and our own global interests.

FIFA has an opportunity to lead the way and, with the IOC, be a voice for global equity and transparency. For a truly level playing field to be achieved, much needs to change. Real change, however, is not moving the 2022 World Cup from Qatar to England or the US. It needs to go to the heart of global inequities.